The famous Marseille dive of Veer Savarkar unleashed havoc in international law on French territory
अनादी मी, अनंत मी, अवध्य मी भला।
मारिल रिपु जगति असा कवण जन्मला।।
I have no beginning, no end. I cannot be killed.
The enemy who would kill me (my spirit of seeing Bharat free) is not yet born.
These are the famous lines from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s (Veer Savarkar) poem ‘Aatmabal’. To escape the steel claws of the British, he jumped out of the ship into the sea and made an unprecedented attempt to escape, but unfortunately, he failed. Savarkar was indeed disappointed but did not give up on the efforts. After his failed attempt to escape from the British, to keep his spirit high, he wrote this poem. It shows his conviction to fight for making Bharat Mata free.
It was Sunday, 13th March 1910. Veer Savarkar was arrested by the British police at London railway station on the allegation of treason against British rule. The magistrate had ordered the case to be tried in India. Accordingly, the British took Savarkar in a boat named ‘S. S. Morea‘, a British merchant vessel that left for India on July 1, 1910.
Savarkar was kept in Brixton prison, London, where he had many visits from his colleagues during that period. He planned along with his close aide V V Aiyar for his escape from the prison. They planned that Aiyar would wait on the French shores with a car so that it will be easier for Savarkar to escape.
The British were always petrified about Savarkar and feared that Savarkar might cause some trouble while passing through France’s sea route, which was their regular route to India. Hence it was decided that the boat will not take its regular path, but sail through the Bay of Biscay. However, due to some malfunction in the boat, it became necessary to take the route through the Port of Marseille. Finally, on Sunday, July 7, 1910, the ‘Morea’ landed at the port of Marseille. The Morea had to be anchored in the deep sea because of its huge size.
Accordingly, the British authorities informed France about Savarkar’s extradition to India via the French port. A Mumbai police constable and other officers kept a close eye on Savarkar because they speculated that Indian freedom fighters might try to oust him. Savarkar was very calm and composed from the outside, but only he knew the huge waves of thoughts arising in his mind. He started thinking about the great escapes of Krishna, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, and Napoleon from the claws of their enemies. He made up his mind to escape from the boat, but the real challenge was to jump into the sea, which was a real danger that could possibly result in death. He also thought about the possibility that after taking the dive and swimming across, if he couldn’t find help on the shores of France, what could be the outcome? He could have probably been taken into custody by the British again and they could have tortured him then. His mind was battling enormous thoughts and considering all the possibilities before jumping into the sea.
On the morning of July 8, Savarkar woke up with an unusual determination. He told the soldiers guarding him that he wanted to go to the lavatory. Two soldiers accompanied him to the toilet. The historic moment of escape was fast approaching.
As the soldiers guarded outside the toilet door, Savarkar locked the door from inside and put his vest on the glass window through which the soldiers could easily see inside. The soldiers panicked and started knocking on the door. There was a porthole at the top of the toilet. Savarkar already had doubts as to whether he would be able to get out of the small window opening, so the day before, he had used his “sacred thread” – called “Janaeu” to measure the window opening and check whether he could pass through it. Savarkar’s second attempt to jump and grab the porthole succeeded. He opened the glass door of the porthole and, paying reverence to Bharat Mata, Savarkar bravely pulled his body out of the narrow porthole and plunged into the vast ocean.
Savarkar suffered many injuries while trying to escape from the porthole. The salty water of the sea was making his wounds all the more painful and unbearable, but he didn’t care. All he could see was his freedom from the British.
While Savarkar was escaping the porthole, the guards noticed it and they were terribly upset. There was chaos on the boat. Despite such tight security, the determined freedom fighter escaped through it. The British personnel started raining bullets on Savarkar who by now had swum quite a distance.
He realized that he had to swim faster because the soldiers had started firing bullets, but fortunately he did not get hit by any of these bullets. After much struggle, Savarkar finally reached and set his foot on the French shore. He came across a 9 feet high wall, which he tried to climb. He succeeded in the second attempt and jumped beyond the wall.
In his childhood days, Savarkar had taken the oath of revolution even in his childhood. Knowing the physical hardships, a freedom fighter might have to face, he had prepared his body accordingly by regular exercise. He practiced swimming, climbing walls, and sleeping in the open in the woods.
As decided earlier, Aiyar was supposed to be on French soil to rescue Savarkar. But, Savarkar could not find him anywhere, hence he started running on the streets of Marseille. At that very time, he noticed a French policeman.
Savarkar walked up to the French policeman and asked him to be taken to a nearby police station in whatever little French he knew. It was at this very point in time that the British police arrived at the scene. The British police negotiated with the French police and managed to arrest Savarkar.
This was a clear violation of international law. Savarkar was taken back on the boat. Shortly, V V Aiyar and Madame Cama arrived by car but it was too late.
The British police officers were aghast at Savarkar’s escape from the vessel amid tight security. Many took inspiration from Savarkar and his speeches, hence the British police were terrified at the thought that the incident of Savarkar’s escape would gain limelight and would make the British answerable for violating international law. This would certainly be a disgrace to the British Empire.
The officers started abusing Savarkar. Replying to them Savarkar said, “I have left my home long back to get my Bharat Mata freed from your rule. I never care for myself. But if you want to live with your families then do not touch me. Be warned! if you beat me, remember I will certainly harm one of you.” Taken aback by Savarkar’s fierce words, officers stopped abusing him.
Now that Savarkar’s plan to escape had failed, he had a clear idea of what lay ahead, ‘trial’ and subsequent ‘execution’ or at least ‘life imprisonment’. He acutely expressed his feelings effectively in his poem ‘Atmabal’.
The political impact of Savarkar’s well-thought dive in Marseille
Although Savarkar failed to escape, the incident caused a stir in India and Britain. As the news of this incident spread all over the world, India’s struggle for independence came into the limelight. This exposed the harsh reality of the British atrocities on the Indians. The first news about the giant dive by Savarkar in the Marseille followed by the violation of the international law by the British was published in the Paris edition of the Daily Mail on July 11, 1910. Some of Savarkar’s colleagues reported the news of the spine-chilling incident to the newspaper ‘Le Matin‘ in Paris which was published on the 12th of July 1910.
Several other French newspapers covered the case, and they started highlighting that it is illegal to arrest a person on French soil by any other country. The French human rights movement also stepped forward. Demands were made to take the case to the International Court of Justice in Hague.
Guy Aldred, the young editor of Herald of Revolt, a newspaper in England started a campaign for Savarkar’s release. He set up a committee for this and created a great awareness amongst the people of England. Simultaneously, Spain, Paraguay, and Portugal also took a firm stand on the issue and demanded that Savarkar be handed over to France. At the international conference held in September 1910 in Copenhagen, Denmark, it was strongly demanded that Savarkar be sent back to France.
By this time, Savarkar was lodged in Yerawada Jail, India. He made a detailed statement about his escape and secretly sent it to his colleagues. Losing no time, his statement was circulated to major newspapers around the world. Many newspapers around the world started publishing news, and articles on India’s freedom struggle and the struggle of freedom fighters in the cause. They also published about Savarkar and his freedom struggle.
‘Savarkar’ became the much talked about topic everywhere. India now became the focal point on the world platform. India and its freedom struggle gained international attention. The entire episode gave a silver lining to the freedom struggle.
Britain finally succumbed to the international pressure mounted on them and was forced to take action on the issue. Britain and France signed an agreement on October 25, 1910, and it was decided to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The member states of this judiciary were very weak and were under pressure from Britain. The tribunal was given a one-month term. However, in just eight days, they ruled in Britain’s favor. Britain always boasted about the rise of democracy and freedom in their reign and on the other hand trampled on all that in the Savarkar case.
The so-called ‘justice’ given by this international arbitration was criticized globally. A person has the right to seek asylum abroad. Newspapers such as the Morning Post, Daily News (England), and Post (Germany) strongly criticized the decision of denying Savarkar’s rights in the case.
At that time, the Prime Minister of France Aristide Briand, who was infamous for his anti-labor policy, had openly supported Britain by playing a partisan role.
Aldred, who was campaigning for Savarkar’s release, said in his editorial that it is unfortunate for Savarkar to spend the rest of his life in a squalid dark cell in India because of a man (referring to the French PM) who had previously betrayed the French labor class. Briand left France’s sovereignty to chance.
A leading newspaper slammed Britain. The newspaper said that England’s infamous empire is based on bloodshed, brutal repression, and systematic tyranny and coercion. This editorial was so popular at that time that some other newspapers also published it. Many newspapers in the United States, Italy, Germany, and France criticized the verdict given in Hague.
The Prime Minister of France was so frustrated by criticisms pouring globally, that he resigned just three days after the Hague tribunal’s decision.
Savarkar’s daring dive in the Marseille was so sensational that it had shaken the British and the French empires to the core.
The British fast-tracked Savarkar’s trail in India, a case was filed against him and it was expedited. Everyone knew the outcome of the trial. The only question left was what would the punishment be? The verdict was out, and Savarkar was sentenced to two life sentences of 50 years in the Andamans. The infamous, horrendous “Kala Pani“.
The British ensured the greatest punishment for Savarkar with two life sentences in a single birth. The ‘Kala Pani’ was so severe that even a person with a nerve of steel would tremble. Savarkar set foot on the boat on June 27, 1911, to serve 50 years in the most inhumane dungeons.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was only 28 years of age at the time.
1. Text in Blue points to additional data on the topic.
2. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.
3. The original work is in Marathi, published in Loksatta, 8 July 2010.
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